South Africa has higher-education priorities that international ratings systems don't always reflect.
I was reading Sean Muller's Mail & Guardian article on rankings in higher education ("University rankings a flawed tool", January 4), when I caught a glimpse of a television insert in which one person was juggling balls and another was balancing high up on a tightrope.
The connections between juggling and tightrope, walking on the one hand, and global rankings, on the other, struck me because of my own experiences at the University KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
We have maintained a research output that has contributed to making us the third most productive South African university in these terms for the past few years and also placed us among the top 400 universities globally in the 2012-2013 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, but we have had to ensure that our engagement with rankings does not come at the expense of what is broadly termed a transformation agenda.
Getting this balance right certainly requires juggling — a challenge similar, though not identical, for the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand, which also feature in the Times Higher Education rankings, though UKZN is the only merged university among the four. The agenda universities have to deliver on includes increasing student access; supporting young academics to complete PhDs and so building the next generation of academics; funding and creating incentives for mid-career and established academics' research; and teaching initiatives.
Muller suggested that some institutions, although supporting publication outputs, could "game" the system to increase their rewards from the state's publication incentives funds. He made the point that young academics in South African universities have not necessarily been the beneficiaries of this state support and have often been "discarded" and "used primarily for teaching".
Taxpayers' money, he pointed out, has been channelled to research and, by implication, researchers whose work has "no substantive local connection".
He suggested that this abuse is a consequence of the role that research plays in the various flawed ranking systems, ones that force universities to emphasise and support the research endeavour in often quite unacceptable ways.
But there are numerous exceptions to Muller's argument that young academics are not supported and that research has little local relevance or connection. UKZN, for example, has research focus areas linked to key national and global grand societal challenges.
In addition, research money supports a directorate of capacity development that drives initiatives such as writing and mentoring workshops, supervision skills training, and funding for new PhD graduates to conduct postdoctoral work. Young scholars also benefit from the fee remission granted when they register for full-time master's and doctoral study.
The problems with rankings that Muller pointed out are well documented in academic literature and they are ones that we at UKZN are well aware of in our engagement with rankings. He is also correct in pointing out that universities would — or I believe could possibly — engage in unethical behaviour in order to feature positively in the rankings.
The New York Times reported in January last year that many colleges had admitted to submitting incorrect information for years — or, to put it bluntly, lying — to get better ratings. Clearly we have to rely on the principles and practices of good governance, as is the case with all projects.
However, any decision to engage with rankings is nuanced and complicated. We cannot take the position that doing so is "anti-transformation" — that is, not in keeping with the public visions, missions and strategies of South African universities.
Differentiation between tactics and principles is key
As a young activist in the anti-apartheid struggle, one of the early lessons I learnt was to understand a context and then differentiate between tactics, strategy and principles in deciding on the way forward. Thinking about rankings reminds me of my early political training. It would be extremely short-sighted of South African institutions of higher learning to be merely principled rather than also strategic in their engagements with global rankings.
Nostalgic, backward-looking criticism of modern developments in relation to rankings is not helpful. Yes, they should be looked at
critically, but not with undifferentiated hostility. In the South African context, and globally, they are not going to disappear, whatever the criticism.
The question that should concern South African universities is how to operate effectively in this environment. Understanding it will make it possible to take decisions that allow for ratings without being dominated by them. Such an understanding must take teaching and social service into account more than an overwhelming obsession with ratings would seem to allow.
Like many developing countries, South Africa arguably has higher-education priorities that are not fully reflected in most, if not all, rating systems. A huge and urgent priority is the large population of academically poorly prepared young students for whom it is essential to provide intensive and expert teaching.
Nevertheless, there is consensus that research is also vital in South Africa. Without it, reducing poverty and hunger, alleviating unemployment and fostering an active and critical civil society are unlikely to be possible. Though South Africa has a higher research output than any other African country, there is no prospect of developing a major research university on the lines of Oxford or Harvard.
American education professor Philip Altbach has written that most countries can support at least one university of sufficient quality to participate in international discussions of science and scholarship and can also undertake research in one or more fields relevant to national development. South Africa does better and supports a small number of institutions with a robust research capability.
It just makes sense
The reality is that research and research publication are likely to remain pre-eminent in generating ratings. South African universities should exploit this common ground to the maximum. There are many reasons other than rankings for encouraging research, but for this reason alone — that ratings are now a permanent part of the environment — it makes sense within any South African university's broader priorities to stress research as much as possible. Supporting research for a development agenda in turn feeds into what is required for ranking indexes.
Recognising the crucial contribution of research, and acting on this recognition, is not only rational in itself but it is also the most effective way of improving teaching and learning, even at the undergraduate level. Research can be the engine that pulls forward the university as a whole. It exposes students to academics who are at the forefront of their disciplines and creates norms of achievement that permeate not just postgraduate studies but also the entire institution.
I am perfectly aware that rankings present South African universities with a dilemma. An obvious problem is that globally provided information about institutions that operate within specific local environments can be misleading. Higher education leaders who understand the phenomenon and who operate without illusions about rankings have a clear-sighted focus not so much on rankings, but on how they can be made to serve existing institutional goals — not least in the area of research excellence and productivity — without distorting the long-term aims of their institutions. This is the way that UKZN has approached its stepping into the ranking environment.
There is no doubt that when parents, students and prospective employees explore where to register or invest their resources, they are increasingly turning to the ranked status of a university. It is common to hear parents and students say "but I read the university is on the top 200/400 list". Global rankings are a tool in recruiting students and they also assist graduates seeking employment.
I support the idea that rankings systems need to pay added attention to rating single subjects or discipline areas and to group the excellence of these disciplines. Additional attention should also be given to how teaching can be integrated with research.
Increasing student numbers and recruiting faculty and students from around the world are unarguably beneficial to the agendas of South African universities. So too is the increased visibility of our universities internationally — hopefully with improved attention from funding agencies locally and abroad.
Although universities on the continent are competitors when it comes to rankings, in the final analysis the success of any African university is beneficial to us all. It sends the message that we can compete globally, make valuable contributions to global agendas that positively affect both South Africa's and the continent's knowledge production and dissemination, as well as, essentially, on our development too.
Professor Cheryl Potgieter is deputy vice-chancellor and head of the college of humanities at the University of KwaZulu- Natal